Landscape photography in Antarctica is an all-time favourite genre for many photographers. It’s not hard to see why: the frozen continent has a huge amount to offer in terms of stunning scenery. However, with endless photography opportunities, it can be overwhelming to capture that special shot.
This article explores the gear, locations, and composition considerations that will help you get the most out of your landscape photography in Antarctica.
How to capture the landscapes of Antarctica
As you can imagine, the pristine environment of Antarctica has no shortage of impressive scenes. However, transforming these impressive scenes into images which are pleasing to the eye can be harder than you think.
Gear for Antarctica landscape photography
The best camera for landscape photography in Antarctica is the one that you have, and that you feel comfortable using. The light is typically fairly good in Antarctica and without the need to capture fast-moving objects, there isn’t a requirement for a top-of-the-range camera. The main aspect to consider is your lens choice, which will depend on whether you have a crop sensor or a full-frame camera.
Whichever type of camera body you take, make sure you have plenty of memory cards, especially for landings where you can’t go back to your cabin. You can learn more about how to protect your camera gear in Antarctica, for zodiacs a dry bag can be a good idea, especially if there are high winds.
Another good tip is to carry spare camera batteries in pockets close to your body, the cold temperatures can have a negative influence on battery life and this helps to keep them warm.
Lens choice is more important than your camera body selection. I found that flexibility is especially critical. This is because many of your shots are taken from a moving zodiac or ship where scenes and therefore compositions change quickly. Almost every photograph within this post was taken with my Tamron 16-300mm, this is a budget-friendly, lightweight and compact ultra‑wide spectrum focal length zoom lens. This is one of my favourite lenses, with further details within the post on the best lenses for the Nikon D7200.
Although the Tamron 16-300mm has a relatively narrow aperture range of f/3.5-f/6.3, this wasn’t an issue for Antarctica’s landscapes which I usually shot at f/8. If you’re looking to understand more about the importance of aperture, you can read more about aperture in photography.
The main disadvantage of a lens with such a wide focal length range is that the sharpness and image quality are not at the same level as a more expensive, larger wider aperture lens such as a 24-70 f/2.8 or 70-200 f/2.8 telephoto lenses.
I also took my Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens, which was used for the first photo at the top of this post. I expected to use this lens more, but in fact, I found it to be too wide for most scenes. 16mm on the wide end of the Tamron 16-300mm was usually sufficient for capturing wider scenes. It’s still worth taking a wide-angle lens as it enables the capture of a different perspective.
I found that I rarely used my 35mm and 50mm f/1.8 lenses in Antarctica, especially for landscape photography. But these are handy for portraits and don’t take up much space or weight.
Locations for Antarctica landscape photography
Landscapes in Antarctica can be captured from many different vantage points, giving options for different perspectives. This includes numerous viewpoints from the ship, from the zodiac during cruising or of course during landings.
From the ship
Most of my photos of the landscapes of Antarctica were taken from the ship. During an Antarctica expedition to the white continent, the ship will pass many impressive locations. Here are my top tips for ensuring you can make the most of your landscape photography from the ship:
- Familiarise yourself with the ship and all the decks and vantage points. This enables you to get to the best spot quickly and easily.
- Always carry your camera gear around the ship with you. Make sure you have your main lenses and spare batteries. Read more about essential camera gear for Antarctica photography
- Spend as much time as possible out on deck. This increases your chance of getting the best pictures. For this, the correct clothing is essential. Read more about what to wear in Antarctica.
- Don’t be afraid of bad weather. As long as it’s safe to do so, wrap up to keep warm and dry. Read more about how to protect your camera gear.
- Plan your meal times to ensure you’re not passing through scenic areas which could be perfect for photography. Always get a window seat!
- Be prepared to get up early and stay up late. The sun barely sets during the season in Antarctica.
- Find a spot on deck early for stunning scenic routes, such as the Lemaire Channel, as it can get busy.
Although shooting from the ship gives a huge variety of different scenes, shooting from land gives the possibility of unique vantage points of the most beautiful places. Such as the wine angle shot over Orne Harbour below, or the shot from the same location but along the water’s edge.
I found that most of the time at the landing sites I was making the most of being up close and personal with the incredible wildlife, mainly the penguins!
I found that taking landscape shots from the Zodiac was fairly challenging. This was mainly because of the movement of the boat, wind and spray. The fact that you’re facing inwards, often with people either side also makes getting a shot you would like difficult. This doesn’t make landscape photography impossible, but it does pose some problems.
That being said, being low to the water allows icebergs to become the perfect foreground interest.
If you do have a choice, try to sit at the back of the zodiac. This is a great way to avoid most of the wind and spray (which covers those in front of you!) while also allowing you increased flexibility to turn backwards for a wider field of view. However, always listen to your guide and driver, and if they want you to be in a certain spot, make sure you’re listening.
With the variety of scenes in Antarctica, there are many different ways to capture
Capturing reflections depends on both weather and location. Calm water in bays and channels offers ideal photographic opportunities for reflections.
During our trip, the best reflections were at the opening the the Lemaire Channel. All other locations had too much wind for mirror-like water to capture reflections. Such conditions can also work well when combined with symmetry, as shown below.
Long focal lengths
Often details in the distance can provide unique compositions, to fill the frame with these details a longer focal length lens is required.
Sense of scale
There are many opportunities to include elements such as boats, people and wildlife in images of the scenes in Antarctica. This is a great way to provide a sense of scale for the grand mountains and icebergs around the Antarctic peninsula.
A popular photography technique to enhance your composition is the use of layers. Icebergs, snow, rocks and mountains can all make perfect subjects for adding layers to your photos in Antarctica. Penguins and their tracks in the snow can also add leading lines to your images if used correctly.
Lighting is the single most important factor for photography, without light photography isn’t possible. Luckily during the season in Antarctica, the best time to visit Antarctica is in Summer when the sun barely sets. The advantage is that there is no shortage of light throughout the day. However, for sunrise or sunset for soft, golden light the timing can be at extremely unsocial hours! That being said, it’s worth getting up early or staying up late, as the “golden hour” definitely lasts for a while, this could be a chance to capture your best images.
Although the good light helps, the brightness of the snow can create challenges. This requires you to keep an eye on your camera settings, in particular your exposure. The bright snow causes your camera to overcompensate in terms of exposure, darkening the scene. The best way to combat this is to increase your exposure compensation to avoid the snow looking grey in your images, often +1 or higher is required.
Framing can be a challenge in Antarctica, but if you come across suitable icebergs or rocky outcrops these can sometimes be incorporated effectively as a frame. The use of Framing works well to put focus on the subject of the image, for example, the ship framed below the rocks at Orne Harbour.
As there are not many made-made buildings in Antarctica, they add interest to a landscape image, especially when these add a splash of colour to the scene.
Sunrise and sunsets
As described in the section on lighting, this is an important factor for landscape photography. The mornings and evenings in Antarctica are extended as the sun only sets for a very short period of time. As the sun is low on the horizon for a while, this leads to prolonged sunrises and sunsets with plenty of soft light. It’s well worth getting up early or staying up late to experience a sunrise or sunset in Antarctica. Sleeping can wait for the trip back across Drake Passage, or when you’re home!